When our children die from discipline: Is there no other way?

I HAVE followed with interest the reports in our media of parents beating their children to death in an attempt to discipline them. The debate that has followed, particularly the last reported incident of a mother who allegedly beat her 10 year old son to death over 25 cents, has been interesting as well. Contributors to this debate had had different and very strong views, some have condemned the mother, a few have expressed sympathy. What has been absent has been an analysis of how as parents we find ourselves in that position and how society has perpetuated corporal punishment as an acceptable, if not favoured mode of discipline. We have not fully engaged with the question of whether this mode of punishment works, why we use it, whether it is in the best interest of the child and what alternatives would be available if it were to be stopped.

What is sad is that the incident of the Chitungwiza mother who is reported to have beaten her son to death for stealing 25 cents is that it’s one of many that have been reported in the media. My research came up with the following reported higlights cases:

  • In 2013 a Chiredzi man whipped his one-year-old son to death for soiling his pants when he had a running tummy .
  • In 2015 a Chitungwiza woman beat and killed her 10-year-old niece for stealing 1 Rand
  • In 2015 a Gutu man is reported to have tortured his 4-year-old to death for soiling his himself
    In 2016 only 4 cases of children killed during physical punishment were reported in separate newspapers. The most publicised one is the Chitungwiza one about the mother who killed her son for 25 cents.
  • In January 2016, a Bikita man is reported to have beat his 13-year-old son to death for farting
  • In May a Kwekwe woman is reported to have beat her daughter to death for sexual promiscuity
  • In July the Chronicle reported that a grandmother beat and killed her 4-year-old granddaughter

As recent as two weeks the Masvingo Mirror reported a case of a Gokwe man who whipped his 7 year old to death for allowing some cattle to stray into a neighbour’s field.

The practice continues to be widely used and in most cases is regarded as a normal part of child rearing, so much so that six in 10 children ages 2 to 14 are regularly beaten by parents and caregivers worldwide, according to a report issued by Unicef beginning of September 2014.

Being a parent myself, I believe that no parent sets out to kill their child. The motivation, except in extremely abnormal cases is discipline. Parents want their children to be well behaved and, if you like be model children.
When children make mistakes, or outrightly refuse to be disciplined, parents react in the only they have been taught by society, they use corporal punishment. Unfortunately at times excessively and the child dies or is injured for life. Despite these obvious negative results of corporal punishment most people in Zimbabwe will emotionally argue that corporal punishment is necessary for child discipline. Sadly this view is not only held by Zimbabweans Unicef reports that 3 in 10 adults worldwide believe that physical punishment is necessary to raise or educate children! I perfectly understand this view, I used to hold and defend the same view until I was put in a position where I had to critically analyse the objective of parenting and I realised that if it was to bring up confident, balanced responsible citizens then corporal punishment would not aid the achievement of this objective.

i. Why corporal punishment does not work

I will acknowledge that the reason why there is so much debate about corporal punishment in Zimbabwe is that it is a generally accepted practice and communities do not understand why that has to change. In my early days of training myself not to use corporal punishment on my children I took time to read about why corporal punishment is not working despite its widespread use. My findings and observations are as follows:

ii. Corporal punishment is physically harmful

Its usually administered in anger, increasing chances of injury during administration. With the number of parents, caregivers, and even teachers who are accidentally killing children in the name of corporal punishment I am sure the reader will agree with me that the practice is physically harmful. Numerous other caregivers have permanently injured their children in the name of discipline, yet we continue to believe it’s an indispensable part of child rearing.

iii.
Corporal punishment does not teach any values

When we administer corporal punishment on children instead of reasoning with them what we are teaching them is that they don’t have to engage with a smaller person than them, they can just beat them into submission. In the process of beating our children into obeying we lose the opportunity to teach them practically how to negotiate and argue they point of view in life. Corporal punishment does not make a child appreciate what they have done wrong
Research to date indicates that physical punishment does not promote long-term, internalised compliance. Most (85%) of the studies reviewed by Elizabeth Gershoff (a psychologist who has studied corporal punishment) found physical punishment to be associated with less moral internalisation of norms for appropriate behaviour and long term compliance. Similarly, the more children receive physical punishment, the more defiant they are and the less likely they are to empathise with others . This arises from the fact that the child will obey out of fear of punishment, not because they understand and appreciate that it’s the right thing to do. This is obviously unsustainable and breeds a situation where disobedience comes once the fear is gone. Talking to children and convincing them of correct behaviour, allowing them to question us (maintaining due respect) where necessary is time consuming and requires us to spend time with our children and not be too lazy or too busy to teach our children rather that command them. This at face value, might appear like its encouraging indiscipline and disrespect but it has two benefits, it helps in making our children understand why they have to behave in a certain given manner and it also gives them opportunity to sharpen their communication skills in life. If we want to raise future leaders, we have to let them practice praxis and self-expression in our homes!

iv. Corporal punishment perpetuates gender-based violence


Gershoff also found that Parents and caregivers prefer corporal punishment to any other form of discipline because its fast and achieves immediate compliance but has a downside of making children think violence is normal in relationships with loved ones. Corporal punishment creates a space in our homes and our schools where violence is accepted and encouraged.

As long as this space is maintained, its going to be difficult for us to end gender based violence. The psychology of violent solutions to disagreements is that the big person forces compliance by beating whoever is weaker than them. In our homes therefore the father forces the mother to comply by beating her and she forces children to comply by beating them and the cycle goes on. The male children who grow in such a household will grow up to beat up their partners and wives and girls will grow up to accept it.

v Corporal Punishment weakens the parent-child relationship

Children exposed to physical punishment tend to associate their parents with pain and will avoid them. This in turns interferes with the process of development of trust and closeness that is necessary between parents and children. In this nation of ours where children suffer child sexual abuse every parent needs to be the first person that their child comes to if there are uncomfortable with any situation. Where the relationship lacks trust this would not happen.

vi Corporal Punishment as a human Rights issue

Several International instruments have in one way or another prohibited physical punishment against children yet parents, teachers and courts continue to administer it. I will, however talk about the International Convention on the Rights of the Child-the UNCRC. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is charged with monitoring countries’ compliance with the provisions of the CRC, has at several points in the last decade stated that the physical punishment of children is incompatible with the CRC, which explicitly prohibits “all forms of physical or mental violence” (Article 19).

In 2006, the Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a General Comment, the strongest type of statement it can make, in which it stated explicitly that physical punishment is a form of “legalised violence against children” that is prohibited by Article 19 of the CRC and thus should be eliminated through “legislative, administrative, social and educational measures.

The fact that this prohibition has been left to member countries to embrace or not has left children less protected than adults because they do not have legal protection from assault, despite their obvious vulnerable status. The Zimbabwe Constitution clearly outlaws corporal punishment in section 53 where it prohibits subjecting of any person (which includes children) to physical (corporal punishment) or psychological torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In interpreting section 53 Justice Muremba in the case of S v Willard Chokuramba pointed out that Section 53 of the Constitution absolutely outlaws corporal punishment in all environments which include at home, school and indeed in courts among others.

The judgement, as we all know became a subject of debate in Zimbabwe prompting litigation for and against corporal punishment. The Constitutional Court set aside the Muremba judgement and the nation continues to physically punish their children legally!

Arguments in support of corporal punishment

The most common argument that I have heard being proffered in support of corporal punishment is that its our African way of doing things. In setting aside the judgement by the lower Court Justice Chidyausiku argued that abolishing corporal punishment is not Zimbabwean and would result in higher levels of indiscipline among our children. In summary of the Chief Justice’s position the Chronicle screamed:” Whip your Kids!…Chief Justice slams anti-corporal punishment advocates” The argument extends to say other methods are foreign. This argument creates the impression that corporal punishment is inherently African and that Africans have always relied on corporal punishment to teach their children discipline. I strongly differ with this position. The way I understand my history as a proud African woman is that corporal punish was the exception rather than the norm. In Zimbabwe, for example, there were other fora for teaching children values, like dare rasekuru a space where young and adolescent boys would gather in the evenings to listen to words of wisdom from a respected man in the family. Discipline was clearly supported by other methods of friendly communication with children like folk stories(ngano) and song, idioms (tsumo nemadimikira). Every folk story has a moral lesson to it and entertainment was present but secondary. Some stories would come with songs to buttress the lesson and the children would sing along! The idea was to teach hunhu, Ubuntu(humanness) and discourage selfishness and greediness. If adults could sit and tell stories as a teaching method, there was clearly rapport with children and no fear! Tell me how different this is from the recommended modern methods of family conferences and engaging with rather than screaming at children.

One striking difference between today’s parents and the generations that came before us is that while today’s parent is busy at times trying to earn a living or with friends or at the bar, our ancestors used to spend time with their children.

Most parents will argue that corporal punish is not harmful because they were brought up under it and they are fine. My response here is, I don’t agree we are fine if we are a nation where 54% of violence against women is by their husbands! We are definitely not fine if we continue to have cases of parents beating their children to death and our adolescents are killing care givers and other children. Clearly, we need to change something!

There are other ways

If we are to stop corporal punishment, then what are the alternatives, because children still need to be disciplined! Have a preventive approach by building a strong relationship with your children.

a. Talk to your children

Practice talking to your children and explaining to them why they cant do what they want to do at early age. I can testify this works, I have tried it! From the time a child can talk if you start saying no and explaining why you get into a space where you can have a conversation about anything. Parents might not like it because you get challenged to explain every time you say no and you have to have a good reason ready. It however communicates to the child that you respect them enough to explain your position and that you believe they have the capacity to appreciate what is wrong and what is right. It also teaches them not to be docile receivers of instructions but to question and ask for explanation, a skill every adult needs. Make a few easy to comprehend rules and apply them as a household team. My experience with this approach is that as your child grows older they might actually be the ones mobilising their siblings on the do and donts of the household.

b. Give positive feedback

Take time to appreciate good behaviour so your child knows you notice. This positive reinforcement will make your child want to be appreciated more and will therefore try harder. Don’t make your child feel its not worth it to make an effort because you are blind to positive efforts but have a sharp eye for mistakes!

c. Make time for your children

Most of us spend our spare time with friends and forget our children need us more. When you spend time with your children both as individuals and as a group you get to know them better. Make a habit to take a walk with them as individuals, or do the dishes together or work the garden, this way you get to have your one on one and you will understand your child better. This is particularly important when you are parenting adolescents where you need to discuss difficult matters like sex, sexuality, HIV, dating, condoms etc. Our set up today requires that as parents we discuss these issues with our children. If we don’t somebody else will and we might not agree with that other person’s messaging! We should not wait to reprimand or beat up an adolescent who has fallen pregnant when we never talked to her about the advantages of delaying sexual debut for example! Time as a group will help you see how each one of them relates in a group. All this will give you better insight and guide you in issues of discipline.

Make family conferencing a family ritual, ask your children to pick the agenda, accept it might involve feedback on your conduct at times. This is healthy and will enhance bonding. Show them you can handle negative feedback and you expect the same of them.

d. Set a good example

Our children copy and mimick us. The child wants to be like their parents. Children identify with their parents, and they will put feelings and actions into words when they see their parents doing this. Who the parents are, and how they behave, will have a profound impact on the development of their children. Your child will follow your lead. If you want them to take responsibility for their actions do it first! If you want them to be considerate of others and not always put themselves first, let them see you do the same in the supermarket in your driving habits etc! It does not work for us to do one thing and expect our children to do another.
When they make mistakes. Discipline them!
Discipline must communicate displeasure with the action and love for the wrongdoer!

i Withdraw privileges

There is heated debate about this approach. Most people argue that with most people in Zimbabwe there are no privileges to withdraw. This is because where this approach has been used parents and caregivers withdraw privileges like the cellphone, TV etc. I would still recommend withdrawal of these privileges where they are available. As Zimbabweans we have not really used grounding for our adolescents but I believe its also a privilege worth withdrawing. The basic privileges available in most families would however be watching the only available TV in the lounge, playing with friends. These would also be worth withdrawing for a set time until there is a stated commitment to try harder not to break the family rules. Privileges within our context are there to be withdrawn where necessary.

e. Make the child take responsibility

When a child makes a ,mistake that can be corrected ask them to correct it. Examples are if they break something that can be mended ask them to mend it. If they steal ask them to return the stolen item and apologise. If they cant they can go and do a chore for the wronged person. Most adults find it very difficult to admit they were wrong, teach your child at an early age that admitting they are wrong does not take away anything from them that its actually honourable and a sign of self confidence! It is also an indication they would like to do better next time.
f Identify punishment that is age appropriate, useful but not humiliating

In most families this would be extra dishes to clean, extra work in the family garden, extra rooms to clean in the family home. Punishment must not kill the spirit of the child.

In everything we do we need to remember that children are children, they will make mistakes, they will rebel but corporal punishment is not a teaching tool! We have a responsibility ensure violence stops somewhere between generations. Our responsibility is to rear adults who have problem solving skills and who will walk away from violence with pride. Our responsibility is to accept that corporal punishment sends wrong messages and can cause death and disability! No child should die from discipline, if that happens then its failed parenting! We need to work towards a value system where we are completely repulsed by violence of any kind be it against our children, our husbands or our wives.

  • Sibusisiwe Marunda is the REPSSI Zimbabwe country director

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